Friday, February 08, 2008

Competing Philosophies

I just figured out there is dissent in the world of education. I knew that already, but I was not aware of the prevalence within my own college. We are getting immersed in the constructivist philosophy, where children are exposed to experiences and learn to think for themselves, rather than just being told what to learn and how to learn it. They learn by doing, thinking, reasoning and making connections with the larger world. While the general education department accepts this reasoning, the special education department does not. They are behaviorists, and thus they lean more toward the idea that the teacher opens up the child’s head and dumps in all information that the child needs. There is no thinking involved as much as there is drills and memorization.

Now, understand that there are folks all over this spectrum and I have oversimplified the arguments for the sake of explanation to people who are not educators.

I am a constructivist. I think children should think and reason, not just memorize and practice drills. Although once they understand the bigger picture – the concepts and connections – then some drills are certainly appropriate. But the conceptual understanding must come first.

The argument for direct instruction (that is, the dumping of information into a child’s brain) is that struggling learners, those in special education, cannot learn conceptually. It is simply too abstract for them. They can only learn by memorizing the rules and practicing the drills. Maybe I am too ideological, but I believe that all children can learn the big picture, make connections, and think rationally, based on their previous knowledge. Now the learning may not progress at the same level as other children, but I believe that struggling student can do this. Some children with severe disabilities may need other services, of course, but I am open to their learning opportunities too.

But I wonder: Will my philosophy be dashed once I actually get into a real classroom and am really faced with the learning opportunities of struggling, or will I be able to implement the constructivist philosophy with all the children in my classroom? I am pretty optimistic that the special education department is simply mistaken in their assessment that struggling learners can only be taught with direct instruction.


The Lorax said...

Jack, as a parent I suspect that I'm more of a constructivist.

I don't know how you could raise a child in an environment where you would want him or her to think for themselves... without being a constructivist. (Maybe I just made another point on the side?)

The best conversations the boyz and the parents in this house have are ones where we return the favor of asking "why or what do you think?"

Jeremy D. Young said...

I have two daughters that attend a school based upon Classical Education. Part of this approach to education assumes that children go through different developmental phases (not always at strict age defined lines) where certain types of education are more fun and productive.

Young children, usually around 5 - 10 years old absolutely adore being able to soak up information. They enjoy singing songs about the names of the Presidents, or the states and their capitals. They're very well suited to memorization. (we call this the grammar stage) They're very capable and adept at learning all the various rules for a very wide variety of things. They can memorize the English rules for capitalization, sentence structure, vocabulary, etc. They also enjoy learning the rules and facts of many other subjects as well. This philosophy takes advantage of the child's bent and fills them up with USEFUL information, facts, and rules.

At some point in development, the child will begin to question everything, and demand answers to questions that seem hard to them. They often become belligerent if they are not taught logic and the ability to come to conclusions based upon the information that they can gather around them. This is usually called the Dialectic or Logic phase.

I agree with you whole-heartedly that we should do everything we can to avoid cultivating people that are incapable of thinking for themselves. They must be able to not only come to their own conclusions but be emboldened with the tools of learning to teach themselves ANYTHING they wish to tackle.

I feel that too often there is a creation of co dependence in our government schools. Students are taught to be reliant on their peers and their teachers for validation of their thought processes. Independent thought and creativity has been systematically driven from so many of our teenagers.

Always consider what the outcome will be of a teaching philosophy. You seem to be the type of person that already does this well. I propose that the ability to learn alone is one of the most significant outcomes of a good education. People should not be afraid to tackle something they haven't been taught.